It’s easy to understand why Jeeshan Chowdhury, the founder and chief executive of startup Journey Colab, believes strongly in the potential of mescaline to treat alcohol use disorder. Mescaline, a psychoactive alkaloid found in the peyote cactus native to Mexico and the southwestern U.S., is the oldest known psychedelic. It has been used for thousands of years by Indigenous peoples–and was a favorite drug of elders of the psychedelic world, including the writer Aldous Huxley, the poet Allen Ginsberg and the legendary chemist Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin.
Native Americans have used peyote in traditional ceremonies for years, to heal the wounds caused by genocide and opression. For Chowdhury, psychedelic medicines are personal. His own depression was ended by psychedelic-assisted therapy, he says, although he won’t disclose which substance he took.
Social justice advocates have been rooting for Journey Colab which will not use endangered peyote but synthetic mescaline in their treatments. Founded in 2020, the San Francisco-based company set itself apart by reserving 10 percent of its equity in an irrevocable trust designed to benefit indigenous and marginalized communities. In an industry led mostly by white men, Journey Colab has a diverse leadership team. “We are proudly led by people of color and people from the queer community,” says Chowdhury, who was born and raised in Edmonton, Albera, the son of immigrants from Bangladesh. “I’ve been the token brown person many times. We’re not doing that again.”
Importantly, the company is targeting a widespread social ill. The Centers for Disease Control says that more than 140,000 people die from excessive alcohol use in the U.S. each year. “The truth is, we’ve had more deaths annually from alcohol than from opioids until this year,” says Kelly Clark, the chair of Journey Colab’s scientific advisory board and a former president of the American Society of Addiction Medicine. “Our need for additional medical interventions is significant.”
But good intentions will only go so far for Chowdhury and his colleagues, who face a steep climb as they seek FDA approval for mescaline-assisted therapy. The company is off to a slow start; it planned to embark on clinical trials last year but it has yet to begin recruiting patients. While it has a celebrity investor, Sam Altman, the former president of Y Combinator and a well-known accelerator of startups, Journey Colab has raised just $16 million. That is less than many other psychedelic start-ups and not nearly enough to take a drug through the regulatory process. Some members of senior company management have departed. It’s also by no means clear that the spiritual and emotional healing generated by the traditional use of peyote in a communal setting can be achieved by giving a patient doses of white powdered mescaline pills in a clinic or doctor’s office.
A Storied History
Amidst all the excitement around psychedelics–the academic research, the hundreds of startups, the movement to decriminalize plant medicines –mescaline is often forgotten. Psilocybin, MDMA, ketamine, LSD, even DMT are being investigated by researchers as treatments for mental disorders, but Journey Colab is the only company to focus on mescaline. This is mildly surprising because mescaline is not only the oldest psychedelic to be used in the west in modern times, but the first to be studied and synthesized by scientists. Arthur Heffter, a German pharmacologist for whom the nonprofit Heffter Research Institute is named, isolated pure mescaline from the peyote cactus in the 1890s.
“We think of psychedelics as having suddenly appeared on the scene in the 1950s, but prior to that mescaline has had many different lives in many different times and places,” says Mike Jay, the author of Mescaline: A Global History of the First Psychedelic. Mescaline was produced legally by Merck and studied widely during the early decades of the 20th century, in part to see if the visual hallucinations brought on by a mescaline trip could shed light on the understanding of schizophrenia. It turned out to be a decidedly unpredictable drug. Jay writes: “Mescaline demonstrated mental and psychic benefits in individual cases, but it was deleterious in others.”
Mescaline’s best-known and most joyous enthusiast was Aldous Huxley, who was given the drug by Dr. Humphry Osmond, a pioneering British psychiatrist, in 1953. “It is without any question the most extraordinary and significant experience available to human beings this side of the Beatific Vision,” Huxley wrote to his editor. Mescaline inspired literary works include Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and gonzo reporter Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Sasha Shulgin tried mescaline in 1960 after reading The Doors of Perception, Huxley’s classic account of his trip. Shulgin wrote: “It was a day that will remain blazingly vivid in my memory, and one which unquestionably confirmed the entire direction of my life.” Shulgin went on to synthesize hundreds of psychoactive compounds, notably MDMA, in his laboratory in the hills east of San Francisco.
By the 1960s, though, mescaline had all but faded from the scene, to be replaced largely by LSD, a much more potent drug favored by hippies and clinicians alike. Osmond, who coined the term psychedelic, went on to treat alcoholic patients with LSD, with promising results. Members of the Native American Church and others continue to consume peyote as a religious sacrament, but few if any clinical studies of mescaline have been done since the 1950s.
Reflecting on Journey Colab’s upcoming clinical trial, Chowdhury notes that “To our knowledge, this will be the first industry-sponsored human trial of mescaline in 60 years.”
A Sterling Resume
To call Chowdhury a high achiever is an understatement. He was, he says, “a very nerdy kid” who published a scientific paper at age 16. He began medical school at age 19, and later was selected as a Rhodes Scholar, earning a PhD in surgery at Oxford. He also co-authored a test prep guide to the Canadian medical licensing exam and co-founded a company called Listrunner, which helped doctors share patients’ medical records on a private network.
“On the outside, my life looked great,” Chowdhury says. “On the inside, I felt like I was drowning.” He cycled through antidepressants and talk therapy, which helped, up to a point. Only after working with a psychedelic therapist–albeit one with training and credentials–did his depression lift.
“Psychedelic medicine for the first time allowed me to be fully conscious of myself, fully accepting of myself,” he says. “It was like these muddy waters that I’d been drowning in my entire life had cleared up. I could see what was actually holding me down.”
Altman, who as president of Y Combinator oversaw an investment in Listrunner, provided $3 million in seed money for Journey Colab through Apollo Projects, his venture fund for “moonshot” ideas. Subsequent investors include MBX Capital, Delphi VC, Uprising, Lionheart Ventures and Drew Houston, the co-founder of Dropbox.
Journey Colab generated buzz around its Reciprocity Trust concept. “For us, it was not a radical thing to say that the land, the people and the cultures where this medicine comes from are an equal stakeholder,” Chowdhury told The Microdose. Once shares held by the trust are sold, which could happen the next time Journey raises capital, the funds will be used to benefit “community stakeholders, including indigenous communities, to increase equitable access to care and recruit employees and partnerships,” the company says.
Just how this will work is unclear. Sutton King, an Indigenous health advocate, researcher and social entrepreneur who is the first trustee for the Reciprocity Trust, did not respond to requests for an interview. King, who now works for the Indigenous Medicine Conservation Fund, was one of four people on the original leadership team at Journey Colab, along with Chowdhury, chief operating officer Jennifer Pisansky and chief strategy officer Daniel Claussen. All but Chowdhury have since left the company.
Chowdhury says the company is on track with its timelines. It is doing research as part of its IND (Investigational New Drug) application to the FDA, which is required before the agency can authorize human trials. “We plan to begin our first clinical study within the next year,” Chowdhury tells Lucid News. That study will be a Phase 1 trial, focused on safety, to be followed by additional clinical trials investigating effectiveness and safety in larger numbers of patients.
All of that will take time and money. As a private company, Journey Colab does not disclose the details of its financials, but Chowdhury says the company is “well-capitalized for our needs” and expects to raise additional funds in the next year. He says there’s no timetable for getting mescaline to the market. “Our development program is scientifically rigorous, evidence-based, and requires substantial coordination with regulators, so we can’t yet predict precisely when our treatment will be available,” says Chowdhury.
If the goal is to be first to market, Journey Colab is lagging behind B.More, a nonprofit founded by philanthropists Carey and Claudia Turnbull that also aims to treat alcohol use disorder, but with psilocybin-assisted therapy. B.More is preparing to launch Phase 2 and 3 clinical trials at several sites, building on promising research by Dr. Michael Bogenshutz, a professor at the NYU School of Medicine who is also an advisor to Journey Colab.
It’s unclear whether mescaline or psilocybin will prove to be the more effective psychedelic in treating alcoholism. Mescaline can have unpleasant side effects, including vomiting. (One book about the drug is titled Miserable Miracle.) As Jay writes in his history of mescaline, “In contrast to alcohol, as the peyotists of the Native American Church observe, with the cactus you get the hangover first.”
More importantly for developers of psychedelic-assisted therapies, a trip on mescaline can last as long as 10 to 12 hours, about twice as long as a session with psilocybin. Whether that’s an advantage or a disadvantage depends on who you ask.
“There’s obviously going to be a push for shorter-acting agents,” says Peter Hendricks, a professor at the University of Alabama Birmingham and an advisor to Journey Colab. “But there’s reason to think that the length of the experience matters. If you think of this as an opportunity to have insight, you’d think that more time would allow for more insight.”
According to Chowdhury, “Mescaline’s unique properties — that it is long-acting and less potent — make it more tolerable. These are features. They are not bugs.”
There’s no doubt, though, that a longer trip raises the cost of treatment. By email, a venture capitalist who looked at Journey Colab and asked not to be identified says, “Therapist time is therapist time and needing to pay two therapists (as will likely be the case per FDA guidance we are hearing) for 10-12 hours will stack up quite fast. Furthermore, it is not clear that one administration will be sufficient to extirpate symptoms, so if the need is for multiple sessions then this gets very expensive.” For that and other reasons, including the competition from psilocybin, this investor said: “Journey was a quick pass for us.”
A deeper question is whether the power of peyote can be captured by western medicine. Peyote ceremonies can last all night and some believe the collective experience contributes to healing. Someone seeking help may promise to stop drinking, in front of family and friends, who will stay involved. In some ways, this type of community accountability and support more resembles an Alcoholic Anonymous meeting more than it does a visit to an outpatient clinic.
Chowdhury, of course, is aware of all this. “At Journey, we are taking an integrated view that goes beyond administration of a psychedelic compound alone,” he says. “By combining treatment with psychedelic compounds with supportive therapy in a community-oriented setting, we expect our trials will show that patients will be better able to achieve and maintain recovery.”
As the clinical trials progress, observers and investors will have a better sense of where Journey’s journey is leading and whether it will raise the funds it needs to carry out its mission.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated that Sutton King is currently working for the Riverstyx Foundation. King previously worked for Riverstyx Foundation and now works for Indigenous Medicine Conservation Fund.
Image Source: Journey Colab